This sample Susanna Haswell Rowson Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Susanna Haswell Rowson was America’s first best-selling author. Her novella Charlotte, A Tale of Truth (1791), later retitled Charlotte Temple, has gone through more than 150 editions, including nine editions in three languages other than English. Rowson’s controversial portrayals of strong, independent women made her a groundbreaking figure in American literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Young Susanna and the American Revolution
Susanna Haswell was born in February 1762 to Susanna Musgrave Haswell and William Haswell in Portsmouth, England. Her mother died soon after Susanna’s birth. Her father came from a naval family, and when the Royal Navy sent him to the colony of Massachusetts in 1763, he left his small daughter with relatives. William Haswell settled in Nantasket (now Hull) and remarried. In 1766, he brought his daughter to join him in America. Rowson recalled the adventurous journey twenty-five years later in her novel Rebecca, or The Fille de Chambre (1792), describing how her ship arrived in Boston Harbor during a sleet and snow storm. This vivid childhood memory is the source of the shipwrecks or dangerous adventures at sea in six of Rowson’s novels.
In Hull, Susanna Haswell benefited from her father’s small library of books by British writers and philosophers such as David Hume, Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, and William Shakespeare, as well as from conversations with patriot James Otis, who, according to Samuel Knapp, called Susanna his ”little pupil” and often invited her to his home. Her happy childhood was brought to an end by the onset of the American Revolution. Starting in 1775, settlers of the thirteen American colonies revolted against the rule of the British Empire and began the revolution that would later result in the creation of the United States of America. William Haswell’s affiliation with Britain’s Royal Navy invited the suspicion of local revolutionaries, and in October 1775, the family was taken prisoner, moved farther inland, and kept under house arrest for three years. Then, like so many other people suspected of siding with the British, they were taken to Nova Scotia, exchanged for American prisoners of war, and shipped to England.
At age sixteen, Haswell found herself in London among hundreds of other refugees from America, their families deprived of property and livelihood by the war. At first the Haswells waited for an end to the hostilities, hoping to return to America and resume their lives. Without income and deprived of their American land, they passed the time exploring London, its free parks and monuments. As the end of the war extinguished hope of return to America and diminished prospects of financial redress from the British government, responsibility for family finances fell on the shoulders of young Susanna, who took work as a governess to help support her family.
Writing and Acting, Struggling to Make a Living
While a governess, Haswell wrote her first novel, Victoria (1786), which drew heavily on her own experience of dislocation and privation after the American Revolution. Also in 1786, Haswell married the minor actor and singer William Rowson and began a new career as an actress. Marriage did not alleviate Rowson’s need to earn her living. William Rowson was seldom given acting roles and never earned much money. To supplement their income Rowson wrote a second novel, The Inquisitor (1788), a loosely structured series of heartrending domestic scenes.
The novel for which Rowson is best known, Charlotte Temple, was first published in England in 1791. It is a sentimental story of a beautiful, innocent girl seduced and abandoned by a soldier. Such moralistic stories of the perils of straying into sin proved very popular in the nineteenth century, and Rowson’s novel was one of the first to enjoy bestseller status. Such books reflect the strong cultural belief in Western Europe and the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that women and girls should be like domestic “angels”: pious, devoid of sexual feeling, and devoted to their husbands and children. In the fiction of this time, female characters who stray from this model of behavior, even when lured or tricked, usually wind up dead. The last novel Rowson published in England was Rebecca, or, The Fille de Chambre (1792). This tale of Rebecca Littleton, daughter of a retired army lieutenant, is Rowson’s most autobiographical work. The preface to the 1814 edition tells readers that the heroine’s adventures have been those of the author. Rebecca’s vain and cruel employer, Lady Ossiter, deprives Rebecca of her inheritance; Lord Ossiter attempts to seduce her and drives her from the house. Rebecca’s sea voyage recalls Rowson’s own early journey and her idyllic New England village life shattered by the onset of the American Revolution. The novel repeats Rowson’s favorite themes of devotion to one’s parents and the virtues of the middle class, which may be one reason why it, like Charlotte Temple, became popular in America.
Back to America
The Rowsons, frustrated by their inability to earn a living in England, joined a full company of actors who sailed for America in July 1793. In February 1794, the troupe moved to Philadelphia, where Rowson soon became recognized as an accomplished comedienne. Rowson’s first American play, Slaves in Algiers (1794), capitalized on the current attacks on American ships by Barbary pirates from Algeria and other parts of north Africa. Accounts told of American ships being overtaken and those on board enslaved. Rowson’s interest lay not in Algeria, but in the idea of tyranny, and she appealed to her American audience by means of her patriotic American characters. She extended the idea of political liberty to include love of sexual liberty, and the play includes her most staunchly feminist statements.
Educating Young Women
In 1797, Rowson gave up her stage career and turned to women’s education, a field that had always held her interest and was then generating popular concern and debate. That fall she opened a private school, Mrs. Rowson’s Young Ladies’ Academy on Federal Street, the first of its kind in Boston. The academy opened with one pupil, and within a year the school had grown to accommodate more than one hundred students. As an educator, Rowson was known for her strict discipline and for setting a rigorous course of study designed to motivate and hold students’ interest. Despite her responsibilities as headmistress, Rowson still enjoyed writing fiction. Her novels had always been forms of moral instruction, but Reuben and Rachel; or, Tales of Old Times (1798), published the year after she opened the academy, added instruction in history.
For many years, William Rowson earned no steady income. Indeed, despite his constant association with the theater, he clearly lacked acting talent, and evidence indicates that he drank heavily. The couple raised William’s illegitimate son. In 1803-1804 Susanna Rowson published a novel that revealed some of her situation. Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife (1813), first appeared serially in the Boston Weekly under the title “Sincerity.” Claiming in the preface that many scenes had been ”drawn from real life,” Rowson attempted to hide their autobiographical connection by adding that they occurred ”in another hemisphere, and the characters no longer exist,” but even Elias Nason, Rowson’s defender and biographer, admitted that much of the plot paralleled her own experiences, and that the quotation on the title page, ”Do not marry a fool,” related to her own sufferings.
As her health declined and she suffered the losses of people she loved, Rowson’s creative output diminished. Her last works were produced intermittently between bouts of illness. Exercises in History, Chronology, and Biography (1822) is a series of questions and answers, tracing the history of the world from the time of creation to the founding of the American Republic.
Rowson’s last years were unhappy. Her three half brothers had predeceased her, and in 1821, her good friend Catherine Graupner died. Her husband mortgaged their Hollis Street house, and she was unable to pay it off. Still, she managed to write one more novel, which was published posthumously as Charlotte’s Daughter: or, The Three Orphans (1828; better known as Lucy Temple after the 1842 edition). It opens eighteen years after the end of Charlotte Temple. The book seems an expression of Row-son’s old age, reflecting her increasing interest in religion and charitable causes and her nostalgia for times and places of her youth. Rowson died in Boston on March 2, 1824.
Works in Literary Context
Women Writers and Fiction
The works of Rowson and other women writers experienced a surge of popularity in the early nineteenth century. For the first time, the concerns and perspectives of women were being voiced to mainstream readers. Some male writers voiced contempt for these works, denouncing them as popular but lacking any lasting literary value. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of Rowson’s contemporaries, wrote: ”America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.”
In this climate, Rowson, for her part, encouraged other women writers through works such as The Inquisitor, in which she expresses concern for the woman as artist, describing booksellers who urge aspiring women writers to plagiarize and a public that often disapproves of their literary ambitions. She is credited with promoting portrayals of female independence on stage and in print, as shown in her drama, Slaves in Algiers.
As author of the first American bestseller, Charlotte Temple, and the first American writer to find an audience for fiction, Rowson paved the way for other prominent women fiction writers to follow. Writer Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850), became the first domestic novel that was an American bestseller. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was also among the best-paid writers of her day. Like Rowson, Stowe’s writings have been praised as leading exemplars of both sentimental and regional fiction.
Moralism and Filial Piety
Rowson offered much of her work towards the education of women in upholding of morals, especially regarding filial piety—the respect and love for one’s parents and older generations within the family—and the importance of friendship. In her novel, Victoria, the title character resists an attempted seduction only to be taken in by a sham marriage. Soon pregnant and abandoned, she gives birth to a son, becomes insane, and dies. The importance of filial piety runs through the five subplots and several brief stories within stories.
Rowson’s A Trip to Parnassus (1788), a lighthearted poetic evaluation of thirty-four actors and writers at the Covent Garden Theatre, established the writer as a strict moralist among theatrical people, with their sometimes-scandalous private lives. The Test of Honour (1789) appealed to lower-middle-class women, who embraced the young woman protagonist’s independent spirit and moral sense, which is shown to be far superior to that of the wealthy aristocrat who refuses to let his son marry her.
Works in Critical Context
Though successful in her lifetime, Rowson was generally ignored by literary critics after her death. Recently, however, she has benefited from current critical reappraisals of American women writers. Her versatile efforts as novelist, essayist, lyricist, and teacher are increasingly appreciated as a notable contribution to early American culture.
Francis W. Halsey writes in 1905: ”The situations Mrs. Rowson describes, the sympathies she evokes, appeal to what is elemental in our nature and what is also eternal . . . they are wholesome, sane, and true.” Dorothy Weil comments on Rowson’s contributions with the following: ”Mrs. Rowson met the major issues concerning women, and claimed freedom for her sex . . . and taught her reader that she could be the equal of the male in most of the important spheres of life.”
Rowson has stirred favorable scholarly interest since the late 1970s, her rise in critical reputation paralleling the women’s movement. Readers have particularly responded to Rowson’s consistent advocacy of equal education and personal, as well as political, freedom for women. Her enlightened views of women are reflected in strong, adventurous, thoughtful heroines whose positive attributes surpassed the weaknesses of Rowson’s plots. After two hundred years Charlotte Temple still has its fans, and many of Rowson’s other works invite further study.
By the time Rowson published Charlotte Temple, she was a practiced writer whose previous novels showed a competent handling of contemporary genres. Her prose, and to a lesser extent her poetry, had met with moderate success. But when Charlotte Temple was reprinted in America three years after its publication in England, Rowson, still early in her career, made literary history. Hardly read in England, the novel went through more than two hundred editions by the mid-nineteenth century in America, and spawned a ”Charlotte cult.” Charlotte’s supposed tombstone in Trinity Churchyard, New York, became a pilgrimage site for generations of readers. Alvarez Saar, in her essay ”Susanna Rowson: Feminist and Democrat,” maintains that Rowson’s work represents ”a landmark in the development of feminist political ideology in American drama.”
- Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
- Halsey, Francis W. An Introduction to Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth, by Susanna Haswell Rowson. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1905.
- Haywood, Eliza. Female Spectator. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2008.
- Schofield, Mary Anne and Cecilia Macheski, eds. ”Susanna Rowson: Feminist and Democrat.” Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater: 1660-1820. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1991
- Weil, Dorothy. ”Inferior to None.” In Defense of Women: Susanna Rowson (1762-1824). University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
- Cherniavsky, Eva. ”Charlotte Temple’s Remains.” Discovering Difference: Contemporary Essays in American Culture, edited by Christoph K. Kohmann. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 35-7.
- Davidson, Cathy N. ”The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple: The Biography of a Book.” Reading in America: Literature and Social History, edited by Davidson. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
- Forcey, Blythe. ”Charlotte Temple and the End of Epistolarity.” American Literature 63 (1991): 225-241.
- Greenfield, Susan. ”Charlotte Temple and Charlotte’s Daughter: The Reproduction of Woman’s Word.” Women’s Studies 18 (1990): 269-286.
- Hansen, Klaus P. ”The Sentimental Novel and Its Feminist Critique.” Early American Literature 26 (1991): 39-54.
- Kornfeld, Eve. ”Women in Post-Revolutionary American Culture: Susanna Haswell Rowson’s American Career.” Journal of American Culture 22 (Winter 1983): 56-62.
- California State University at Stanislaus Online. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). Accessed November 15, 2008, from http://www.csustan. edu/english/reuben/pal/chap3/hawthorne.html.
- Charvat, William. Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (also known as Charlotte Temple). Accessed November 15, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/ rowson2.html.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.